Henry’s wife passed away 25 years ago, but looking at him now, you’d think it happened yesterday. His body stiffens as he talks about her, pausing every so often to extract himself from the memories passing through his head.
“We didn’t know until it was too late,” Henry said. “And after she passed, everything changed.”
Back in 1993, Henry had barely realized what happened until his wife was gone. Henry contracted HIV from another partner and unknowingly passed it along to his wife. After she died, Henry was left to care for four children and his elderly mother, all the while battling HIV himself.
At the time, HIV was severely stigmatized in his community, making it difficult for Henry to openly seek help and treatment.
Henry would walk from health clinic to health clinic attempting to find antiretroviral medication. More often than not, he’d reach the pharmacy counter just to be turned away. It seemed that there were never enough antiretrovirals for everyone suffering, causing Henry’s health – and the wellbeing of his family – to drastically decline.
“I was so depressed during those years,” Henry said. “It was hard to get medication, and it was frustrating to have nowhere to go for help.”
Poor health, guilt and depression began to consume Henry, making it nearly impossible to work, feed his family, and gather the strength to keep on living. When he and his youngest son, Richard, came down with tuberculosis, they could barely afford the medication they needed to stay alive.
Eventually, a friend referred Henry to Alive Medical Services, a small clinic that had just opened up near Henry’s house. He has remained an active client ever since, returning again and again for treatment over the last 10 years.
“Without Alive, I wouldn’t have made it,” Henry said. “I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been, not just because I get free ARVs, but because I get free treatment of opportunistic infections too.”
After his health stabilized, Henry was able to recommit himself to his children, all of whom are HIV negative. Henry worked constantly to earn enough money for school fees. Because of that, his first three children now have families of their own – and his youngest son, Richard, just recently finished his degree. Richard now works as an electrician, and routinely accompanies his father to the clinic for check-ups.
“The counsellors at Alive helped me be strong for my children,” Henry said. “For any single fathers dealing with the same situation, I’d tell them this: push hard for your children.”
Thinking of his past, Henry recognized that often, men avoid HIV clinics. They don’t want to be seen there, he said, but they need to be more open to the idea.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting tested and treated,” Henry said. “It keeps you alive. Today, I’m proud to tell my story and show people how I’ve survived.”
Twice a month, food is laid outside the doors of AMS. As the clinic swells with patients, doctors walk from left to right, spreading nutrition information. One by one, AMS’ community health workers call out clients’ names, all of whom have been previously measured for severe food insecurity. After nurses assess their health status, each client receives seven kilograms of rice, seven kilograms of beans, two kilograms of sugar, and a bag of fresh vegetables.
One of those clients is Esther, a 35-year-old HIV-positive mother and a patient at AMS. Esther’s partner left her a year ago, making it nearly impossible to juggle her job – selling roasted meat alongside the roads of Kampala – with the care of her one-month-old baby, Sharidah, and two other children.
Without her partner’s support, Esther’s income dwindled; she could no longer afford to eat properly. Her breastmilk began to run out, causing Sharidah to lose weight drastically and rapidly.
“At one point, my children would wake up every morning with no food on the table,” Esther said. “Sharidah was so weak, and so was I. I didn’t know what to do.”
On her next visit, AMS staff took note of Sharidah’s weight loss. AMS enrolled the family in AMS’ food program, and started the baby on food aid. At the same time, AMS educated Esther on proper infant feeding practices.
In the four months since then, Sharidah’s health has greatly improved: she’s gained nearly four kilograms, and smiles and laughs easily. She’s even built up enough strength to stand and walk on her own.
Once Sharidah’s weight stabilizes, AMS will phase the family out of the food program. Regardless, we will continue to support them through other initiatives. AMS engages more than 300 HIV positive clients in our gardening program, for example, which is made up of 18 different clubs. By teaching clients how to plant, grow, harvest and sell their own crops, we help clients raise their incomes (and eat healthy food) in a sustainable way.
“Because of AMS, I have high hopes for the future,” Esther said. “HIV – and my other challenges – cannot bring me down.”
In 2013, Mary came to Alive Medical Services for a check-up. She had a fever and was hoping to see a doctor, receive some medicine, and head back home. Mary thought she only had a passing illness, but just to be safe, she decided to be tested for a number of viruses anyway.
When the doctor returned with Mary’s results, he told her something she would never have imagined: Mary, though married for years to the same person, was HIV positive.
“I was in such a bad state,” Mary said. “I just came into the clinic to get checked for a fever, and then I found out I had HIV.”
Terrified her husband would blame her for the illness, she didn’t say a thing until he developed a rash on his arms. Mary insisted he get tested for HIV, and when her husband came home with a positive diagnosis, he told her the truth. He had cheated on Mary with an HIV positive woman.
At that point, Mary found out she was pregnant with their third child, the first to be conceived after Mary realized her positive diagnosis. She hurried to AMS as soon as she found out she was expecting.
“The doctors helped me maintain good adherence throughout the pregnancy, following up with me as the months went by,” Mary said.
Within months, Mary’s husband left her for someone else. Regardless of his repeated deceit, Mary stayed strong. She kept up with her medication, came to the clinic for frequent check-ups, and focused on delivering a healthy, HIV negative baby.
After nine months of pre-natal care at AMS, and a year-and-a-half of check-ups post-birth, AMS doctors confirmed Mary’s daughter – Lillian – was HIV negative.
Today, Lillian is nearly 2 years old. Mary is in good health, and continues to come to AMS for her antiretroviral medication and regular check-ins. In addition, her family receives treatment of other infections – opportunistic or otherwise – free of charge.
“At first, I was so worried about having HIV,” Mary said. “But today, I’m okay. I’ve accepted it. And I’m well aware that if I take my medication well, I’ll continue to live.”
Taking care of a child – any child – is never easy. But when Irene found out her adopted daughter, Gift, was HIV-positive, she was at a loss for what to do. Gift’s diagnosis came during a difficult time, as Irene brought the baby to Alive Medical Services (AMS) when she was near death. After the doctors and nurses treated Gift, she was started on antiretroviral medication at the age of 2.
“I had never taken care of an HIV-positive person before,” Irene said. “AMS did so many tests and figured out what was happening to my child.”
After Gift’s condition stabilized, Irene continued visiting AMS to seek out advice and retrieve Gift’s medication. The counsellors helped Irene understand the importance of proper disclosure, and taught her methods of discussing HIV in ways that wouldn’t scare or stigmatize her daughter. For years, Irene and Gift took medication together, turning it into a morning routine where Irene would swallow her vitamin supplements, while Gift would take her antiretroviral treatment.
When Irene felt Gift was old enough to know the truth, Irene was honest with her. After discussing her status just the two of them, Irene took Gift to visit the AMS counsellors. Though she was only 8 years old at the time, Gift immediately started tracking her medications with a watch, taking full control over her treatment and her health.
“She really was amazing, and I’m so proud of her,” Irene said. “But she also got the right information from the right people at the right time.”
Gift is now 9 years old, and Irene reports that she feels free about her diagnosis. Her health is stable, and she has disclosed her status to the older members of her family.
“I used to think: how am I going to do this?” Irene said. “I used to be scared. But I thank God for Alive. Now I know exactly how to care for my child.”